The tour is over.
It was an exhilarating and truly memorable two weeks – and when I go back over the photos I shot during that time, I can’t quite believe that we did all that we did.
In many ways the tour was like a Camino.
There were times when it was challenging, and there were times when it was overwhelmingly beautiful –
Other times it moved some to tears of profound joy and bliss,
Other times it was confronting and it forced some to really examine the way they looked at the world.
I have no doubt that those who came on this tour will be changed in some way by what they experienced in these past two weeks.
For some, I know that major changes are now in process.
Like I say, it was like a Camino.
It was a tour unlike any other, because it was a personal tour – it was a tour of our India; the India that Jennifer and I know and love.
Jennifer and I in no way profess to be India experts. It would take us a lifetime to learn all there is to learn about India. And even then, not being Indians, we would still be merely observers of an ancient / modern culture.
But we’ve been coming here regularly now for more than eight years, and we designed the tour around things we like to do – places we like to visit – experiences we’ve enjoyed in the past.
We ate well. Very well. The food was divine. You don’t get Indian food like this outside of India. A couple got Delhi Belly for a short while, but it passed. So to speak.
For the majority, there were no problems.
Jennifer and I took the group to the out-of-the-way restaurants and dhabas we’ve discovered and enjoyed over the years.
Places where you see no tourists, only locals. Places you’d be scared to eat at, normally – where you wouldn’t eat at, normally. These were the places where we had our best meals – meals that were unforgettable.
Like the sweet shop outside Dehradun –
And of course on any spiritual tour there has to be shopping!
Jennifer is a deeply spiritual person. I told one person on the group that if Jennifer sees a temple she’s like a rat up a drainpipe.
She’s the same with shoe shops.
She can’t walk past without rushing inside to take a look…
There was also the beautiful Indian clothing, the jewellery, the genuine pashmina shawls and scarves from Kashmir that are so finely woven they’re almost transparent. You never see this stuff outside of Northern India. Or if you do, the prices are astronomical.
Here they are very affordable.
The ladies loved shopping with Jennifer – because she knows the best places to go to get the best quality, but invariably I was brought in to do the final negotiations on prices!
But food and shopping aside, this was a spiritual tour first and foremost – and it was on that level that most of our group were deeply affected.
Some were moved to tears at the Dalai Lama temple at Dharamsala, others had memorable experiences at the Sikh Golden Temple at Amritsar, and for some, the aarti ceremonies at the ashram at Rishikesh by the Ganges were the highlight.
No-one though will ever forget Ganpati. It’s hard to describe the scale and the magnificence of that evening.
Interestingly, one of our group later pointed out that amongst the millions of people on that beach that night, we were the only foreigners. There were no tourists where we went…
It was my third Ganpati, and so I knew where to go, and how to safely take the group into the heart of it, to experience up close and personal the incredible energy and exuberance of that ceremony.
Everyone on the tour came away loving India, and loving the people. The Indian people at all times greeted us with smiles and warmth and generosity. Everywhere we went – someone would ask us if we could have our photo taken with them…
And they were honest.
There were several occasions when one of our party would leave something valuable behind, at a restaurant or in a shop or on one occasion in a taxi, only to be chased by someone and have it returned.
I inadvertently dropped some money on the floor of a café, and a young Indian lad tapped me on the shoulder and handed me the cash. He could have easily nicked it – it was not a small amount of money and I had no idea I’d dropped it – but he chose to return it to me. I tried to give him a tip to thank him, and he refused, but I insisted.
Like the slum-dweller who wouldn’t take payment for guiding us through the slums for an hour. Again we had to insist before he would take some money.
The tour dispelled many fears, many prejudices, many misguided beliefs about India. That’s not to say that the country doesn’t have thieves and criminals and major societal issues, particularly involving the treatment of women – but our experience was a good one.
One of the reasons we had such a good time was because of our assistant, Rachit.
Everyone loved him.
He not only worked very hard behind the scenes to keep everything running smoothly and meet all the group’s needs, but more importantly Rachit is a highly political and very ethical young man with deeply held beliefs about his country and its social mores. He was able to provide a context and a deeper insight into the country, its people, and its complexities.
It was very sad to say goodbye to everyone yesterday. Over the two weeks we’d all become very close. Like the Camino, the full impact of this tour probably won’t hit for weeks or months later.
The chance encounter with a couple of Buddhist nuns, laughing as they walked up from the Dalai Lama Temple –
The rousing music at aarti by the Ganges –
The early morning light on the Golden Temple –
The transcendence of doing yoga at the Taj Mahal –
Cramming into the back of a tuk tuk –
Donning head scarves –
The ashram hut where George Harrison stayed at Rishikesh –
The rush of a gigantic Ganesh on its way to the Arabian Sea –
The dignity of a slum-dweller, so proud of his work –
The wisdom and mirth in the eyes of an old man –
The innocence in the eyes of a boy –
Everyone has their own gallery of memories from the tour.
No-one will leave India unaffected in some profound way.
It was a pleasure and a delight to have shared our India with such a beautiful bunch of people….